The case of the disappearing TV viewer

by Aaron Barnhart

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

15 May 2007


It’s upfronts week again—time for the major TV networks to unveil their fall schedules and begin their annual mating rites with major advertisers.

It will be a heady time for the producers whose months of script-writing and scene-shooting are rewarded when their pilots are picked up. It will be a bummer for fans of shows that are left off next season’s prime-time grids.

Usually the talk of upfronts is about winners and losers. Advertisers will buy an estimated $8 billion in commercial time. It’s usually a sure thing that networks that had good seasons will negotiate a bigger piece of the commercial time pie, while others are forced to accept smaller slices as the price of declining ratings.

But this year all the networks are looking like losers.

Some 2.5 million people have suddenly stopped watching ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, according to David Bauder in a much-discussed Associated Press story, who called it “TV’s worst spring in recent memory.”

An average of 37.6 million people watched prime-time network TV in March and early April, down from 40 million viewers a year earlier. With very few exceptions (like Fox’s brilliant drama “House”), ratings for nearly every top show are down.

The falloff in audience has been especially alarming in the cases of Fox’s “24,” ABC’s “Lost ” and CBS’ “Survivor.” As for last year’s big fad—serial thrillers packed with tune-in-next-week cliffhangers—well, let’s just say a lot of people didn’t tune in next week.

Most of the new serials are already gone, while the two supposed “hits,” NBC’s “Heroes” and CBS’ “Jericho,” which is set in mythical post-apocalyptic Kansas, are losing steam. In fact, “Jericho” is said to be on the verge of cancellation.

So this week, look for networks to get back to basics. The hottest show idea going is that old standby, the spin-off. ABC has one in the works featuring Kate Walsh, known as Addison on its Thursday-night hit “Grey’s Anatomy.” And Fox has a band version of “American Idol” in the works.

First out of the gate at the upfronts this week was NBC, with a star-studded presentation Monday at Radio City Music Hall. ABC, CBS, the CW network and Fox, in that order, will follow later this week.

What exactly is causing network viewers to vanish is a bit of a mystery. (The AP’s Bauder gathered a whole host of excuses, from kids’ obsession with video games to changing the start of daylight-saving time.)

One culprit, for sure, is the DVR, or digital video recorder. DVRs, which include TiVo boxes, are in about 17 percent of homes, according to Nielsen. With their one-touch recording and vast hard drives, DVRs allow millions of people to skip appointment-TV altogether.

These viewers don’t appear in the traditional ratings, because Nielsen measures DVR-use separately. The chairman of CBS, Leslie Moonves, said earlier this month that “a big chunk of the viewing pie” is being lost to DVRs.

Even worse for executives like Moonves, the people who use DVRs really enjoy using the fast-forward button on their remotes to skip over the ads.

This may not seem like a concern for the average viewer, except that somebody has to pay for those big-budget network shows. That would be the sponsor. And this spring, unless the networks do some particularly nifty song-and-dance routines—not on stage at Carnegie Hall but in their closed-door negotiations—their advertisers are going to take a pile of their money someplace else.

So what, you say: I watch cable anyway. Oh, do you? Well, cable ratings are up only slightly year-to-year, which means not enough folks are joining you to account for the drop in network viewers.

And if you think cable programs are just as good as network programs, you’re leaving one important factor out. As any long-suffering fan of “The Shield” or “The Sopranos” or “Monk” will tell you, cable programs tend to vanish for six to nine months at a time because cable channels can afford only 10 or 12 or 13 episodes for the season, instead of the network-standard 22 episodes. Everything about cable is smaller than network TV: the audiences, the production budgets and the number of shows.

Still, the networks have managed to keep jacking up their rates over the years, and advertisers have paid ever more handsomely for commercial time. As a result, we the audience have been rewarded with the best lineup of prime-time entertainment perhaps in our lifetimes. But for the first time in a long time, there is real worry in New York that the good times may be coming to an end.

Last season the big four networks were being watched during prime time, on average, in just 44 percent of homes, according to historical Nielsen data. Twenty-five years ago, when there were only three big networks, they were viewed, on average, in 83 percent of homes.

In that same period, newspaper readership dipped from 67 percent to 54 percent of American homes. (To those who say I’m comparing apples to oranges, you’re right: I didn’t even factor in the readers we get from the Web.)

If there’s one thing that’s certain in this most uncertain of times, it’s that the people who bring you network TV will have something to say about all this. So stay tuned.


Here are the programs watched off DVRs the most. “The Office” had the biggest spike in its audience (31 percent) when time-shifters were included.

1. “House”
2. “Lost”
3. “American Idol” (Tuesday)
4. “CSI”
5. “24”
6. “Survivor”
7. “The Office”
8. “Desperate Housewives”
9. “American Idol” (Wednesday)
10. “Prison Break”

(Source: Nielsen Co. data for April 2-8)

//Mixed media